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“Mapping the Rosa Parks Papers”: GIS Day 2022 keynote presentation by Mason Jones

by Chris McNulty

On November 16th, Northeastern University Library welcomed attendees to GIS Day 2022. GIS Day is an occasion to recognize and share innovative projects based in GIS methods, as well as bringing together scholars and students in the digital scholarship community.

Keynote speaker Mason Jones kicked off GIS Day 2022 with a presentation entitled “Mapping the Rosa Parks Papers.” Jones is a PhD student at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies and a trained archivist, whose research interests and professional experiences have centered the needs of researchers and users with disabilities. Jones’s work focuses on improving digitization and cataloging practices, and his project on Rosa Parks’s papers stresses these scholarly priorities, as well as the importance of GIS methods and tools.

Jones began their presentation by reminding the audience of the significance of Rosa Parks’s political activity. While Parks’s resistance is taught widely in elementary schools, her political life is often reduced to the events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, obscuring the rich political networks and communities to which she belonged, not only in Montgomery, but also in California and Michigan. Parks’s papers are testament to this wider activity, and by mapping the data contained within them, Jones is working towards a fuller representation of the histories of her correspondents and fellow civil rights and social justice activists. 

Rosa Parks’s personal papers were held by her family after her death in 2005, before being auctioned off and then loaned to the Library of Congress, where they have been part of the crowdsourced transcription project “By The People.” Jones’s own focus is a logbook that Parks kept in 1955, which lists individuals involved in political organizing, along with records of their addresses and telephone numbers. He shared his dataset and the process of constructing it, which included manipulating the digitized transcriptions in order to extract and relate items to each other. While some addresses are partial, there is plenty of material to undertake viable scholarly mapwork. 

An example of the original logbook (left) and the digitized transcription (right).

Jones gave the audience a gratifying look at the map in its current state. There are pockets of individuals plotted around Montgomery, which reveals not only the density of political organizing in certain parts of the city, but also broader patterns of segregation. The map charts prominent local sites mentioned in the logbook alongside the addresses of Parks’s correspondents, and provides contextual information that Jones has gleaned from poring over contemporary phone books from the area. The result is a carefully curated and constructed geospatial expression of the breadth and depth of Parks’s political activity that not only bears scholarly insight, but also exhibits how historical sources of great cultural importance can be presented in more accessible and intelligible forms.

A zoomed-out view of the mapped data.

Looking forward, Jones plans to embed his map into a story map, so that they might give an even richer historical account of the data and of Parks’s life and activism. They emphasized the project’s collaborative prospects, and spoke of plans to bring together scholars, activists and community leaders next year to collect more knowledge and perspectives on Parks and her contemporaries. Jones intends to publish the map in an incomplete state to encourage engagement, and also to recruit people to help him complete the dataset. 

Jones’s thoughtful and inviting presentation was a wonderful way to start GIS Day 2022, which was organized and sponsored by Northeastern University Library Research Data Services; the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; the NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks; and Campus Planning, Real Estate & Facilities.

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